Shifting Structural Power to Advance Race Equity

By Tracy Wareing Evans    May 13, 2022

Catch up on Part 2   |   Part 3

The work of advancing race equity to achieve social and economic mobility is undeniably multifaceted and complex. It requires a long-term commitment to continuous and intentional learning at individual, organizational, community, systemic, and societal levels. While there is no single way forward nor quick fix, there is a clear path for leaders seeking to accelerate the journey—we must simultaneously commit to shifting structural power.

To do so requires that we understand what we mean by structural power and be able to name and understand where and why it exists in our daily work. To illuminate where the imbalances lie, we have to understand the dynamics of power structures better, especially between government services and people who have been historically disenfranchised and marginalized. We have to talk openly about who benefits from structural power and who does not.

A few years back, there was a lot of energy on creating “shared governance structures” to improve outcomes for families by connecting multiple systems together more seamlessly. These were complex endeavors requiring leaders from adjacent sectors like education, employment, health, and justice to come together through formal data-sharing and shared resources. In hindsight, these efforts missed the fact that the most meaningful shift we could make as public leaders was on the ground with people and communities. In other words, creating shared governance across systems does not, in and of itself, create more balanced power structures.

Over the past decade, many public-sector agencies have also taken steps to learn from people who have or are receiving services by including them on advisory councils (and compensating them for that service) or hiring them on as agency staff. As Sixto Cancel from Think of Us implores system leaders, we need to be able to “hear the unvarnished truth. ”While these have been important steps to take, it is not enough to bring people with lived expertise to the table if we do not also create the conditions to act on what we hear, and, in turn, shift our delivery systems to build on their strengths and aspirations. To make good on our intent, we need to actively focus on centering structural power with people to drive the redesign and ongoing evaluation of programs and services.

As public servants in the field of human services, we must start by acknowledging that we have a great deal of structural power, which allows us to shape the relationship we have with the people who seek our services and decide how things get done. While this “power” is inherent in the relationship between government and people, we tend, however, not to think about the way it manifests itself in every aspect of our work. Structural power, for example, exists in routine processes like procurement and grant making—key decision-making levers—and ultimately determine who gets access to finite resources. And, in human services, structural power is exercised from the very moment a person engages with the system. The very act of completing an application for benefits, for example, requires disclosure of personal information to determine eligibility. The information flows one way, and, often the determination, while made by the rules set forth in law and rules, feels arbitrary to the applicant who does not get to see the internal workings behind the black box.

Similarly, we exercise structural power through family assessments (which all too often are not strength based), renewal requirements, and penalties for failing to precisely follow processes and timelines. People experience and imbalance of power when they walk into government offices and are asked to stand behind a plexiglass window that is a literal physical divide and a representation of who has the structural power. Fathers find themselves excluded from a set of whole set of social services built for mothers as the primary caregiver. Youth living in group homes routinely experience power imbalances in doing what most kids take for granted, such as getting permission for extracurricular school activities.

To begin to understand the specific strategies for shifting power and honoring personal agency, we have to ask more questions. Tune back in soon when I’ll begin to ask these questions and more.

Catch up on Part 2   |   Part 3

About the Author

Tracy Wareing Evans (full bio)

President and CEO
American Public Human Services Association

Shifting Structural Power to Advance Race Equity

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